In writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography about President Lyndon B. Johnson, historian Robert Caro once noted that Texas politics in Austin in the 1930s revolved around the “Three Bs: beefsteak, bourbon, and blondes.”
Harrisburg in 2023 shouldn’t look like Texas a hundred years ago. But as two major sex scandals this year have shown, the state capital is littered with politicians who think their election to public office is an invitation to harass staff and fellow members. The alleged sins of Mike Zabel and Mike Vereb are the most well-known, but observers of the scene in Harrisburg know full well that other, similar tales are common knowledge.
Neither Zabel nor Vereb have been convicted of any charges in a court of law and are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Yet that day in court may never come, and as such, the raw allegations must inform leadership in Harrisburg on a way forward out of this morass.
READ MORE — From the Editors: Pennsylvania’s legislature must pursue pay-to-play reform now
Over a long enough timeline, any body of 253 people will have a few rogue actors. But what makes the Zabel and Vereb cases so egregious is that both men were believed to have acted sexually inappropriately for years.
General Assembly leadership knew but did little to nothing.
This is a bipartisan failure. Zabel is a Democrat, and Vereb, despite working for the Shapiro administration, spent a decade in the legislature as a Republican. Elected officials from both parties campaign like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” but govern like “Animal House.” It is the job of leadership not only to run a legislative agenda but to run a party. That means keeping your members in line with the basic rules of the workplace — and the basic standards of civil society.
It is impossible to address the subject of workplace misconduct in Harrisburg without noting that it is tied to a larger atmosphere of adultery and excessive drinking.
This is not to say that alcohol is responsible for sexual harassment and other misconduct, nor is it to say that no one should ever enjoy a few cocktails. Many people imbibe without breaking labor laws or their marriage vows. But problem drinkers who have seen the negative results of their intoxication time and again have a choice to make: dry out or leave office.
There is no room in the legislature — nor in any modern workplace — for people who refuse to control themselves.
People who write the laws for workplaces across the commonwealth should make sure their own offices are safe and lawful.
Instead of covering up the transgressions of their fellow legislators, House and Senate leadership (and the Governor) should demand addicts get the help they need — and mete out consequences if they refuse. The issue shouldn’t be confined to those who admit to a physical addiction after hitting “rock bottom.” So-called “gray drinking” can be just as much of a problem when it’s in close proximity to the workplace, and leaders in both parties should confront that as well.
No one expects little kids to look up to state legislators the way they do to a firefighter or a professional athlete, but those elected to office should bear in mind that they are held to a similarly high standard. People who write the laws for workplaces across the commonwealth should make sure that their own offices are safe and lawful environments for all staff members, legislators, and lobbyists. And even where conduct is legal, those elected to represent the people should represent the virtues to which we all aspire, not the low vices of the late-night bar or cheap hotel room.
“Public office is a public trust,” as Grover Cleveland once said. It is easy to forget that once elected, though many manage to remember. Those who do serve honorably should remind their colleagues to do the same — and work to remove them if they don’t.
Broad + Liberty is a nonprofit media endeavor dedicated to sharing voices and stories that are shut out of other media outlets. @BroadAndLiberty